Ever since Elon Musk paid $44 billion for unprofitable Twitter, everyone has been wondering what he intends to do with the company. Critics fear he wants to make Donald Trump president and could silence critics of China.
When Elon Musk tried to explain to Twitter advertisers on Thursday why they shouldn’t be afraid of him taking over the short message service, he used flowery words that many critics didn’t believe. He wants to serve “the humanity I love,” Musk said. Twitter should become a marketplace for good debates. Harmony instead of violence, public interest instead of a race for click numbers, talking to each other instead of drifting into far left or far right echo chambers. Musk emphasizes that he wants to secure the future of civilization, not cash in.
There are two reasons why Musk has to reassure advertisers at all: On the one hand, since the beginning of the months-long takeover dispute, critics have accused him of buying Twitter in support of Donald Trump and for his own business interests. On the other hand, the erratic billionaire scraped together around $44 billion for the takeover, including through the sale of Tesla shares. The richest person in the world is likely to demand a return on this investment, despite the philanthropic talk. To do this, he has to appease advertisers.
Musk’s Twitter purchase is fraught with contradictions. With the little that the billionaire has revealed about his plans so far, he is primarily raising concerns.
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The first contradiction begins with Musk’s statement that Trump’s lifetime ban on Twitter for inciting violence was “stupid and wrong.” In his Truth Social network, founded as a Twitter replacement, Trump is following significantly fewer people than the 80 million users who used to receive his tweets. Since then, his statements have played a minor role in the media. If Musk brings the ex-president, who is likely to run for office again in 2024, back to Twitter, he increases his chances of a nomination and a win.
Critics fear Musk is doing this out of conviction, not love of free speech. In May, Musk called the American Democrats “the party of division and hatred”; as one of his first acts in office, he fired the manager responsible for combating hate speech and false information, who had decided on Trump’s ban. Corona deniers and other conspiracy theorists also welcomed the move. Critics now believe that Musk is endangering the stability of the United States if he allows hate speech and conspiracy theories to be spread unfiltered.
At a time when the Ukraine war and Taiwan conflicts require a functioning USA, this destabilization could also endanger Germany, Europe and the world. The federal government has already announced that it will withdraw from the network if there is more hate speech.
Contradictory, Musks is cautious because while he is likely to bring Trump back to Twitter, he has little affection for him based on his previous statements. Musk, who claims to be politically neutral, denied Trump’s suitability for the presidency during the 2016 election campaign, called him harmful to the image of the United States and repeatedly criticized him for denying climate change. Since Trump has not changed any of these points, Musk is unlikely to have turned into an ardent Republican.
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So why did Musk invest the $44 billion? It can’t be due to Twitter’s profitability. The short message service has been struggling for years to turn meaning and user numbers into money. In its best year, Twitter threw in profits of less than two billion dollars, in most other years it made losses. If things continue like this, Musk will never get his money back.
Musk is also creating other problems with his huge investment: Tesla operates a large plant in Shanghai and sells many cars in China. If the Chinese government now asks Musk to suppress critical reports, he can only lose. He’s either sacrificing a key Tesla market or alienating Twitter advertisers who are reluctant to associate their companies with messages sanctioned by the Chinese government. Observers fear Musk might be more likely to muzzle critics of China. However, he said on Thursday that he wanted to make Twitter “the most respected advertising platform in the world”. With state censorship, that’s unlikely to work.
Tesla shareholders are also concerned about the Twitter takeover. Securities of the electric car manufacturer, founded and managed by Musk, repeatedly lost value when Musk’s takeover became concrete. Investors apparently fear that the billionaire could lose focus on the company that has made him the richest person in the world because of his many sideline activities. If this trend continues, Musk’s own fortune will dwindle along with Tesla’s share price.
Musk has successfully run Tesla for years while taking care of larger side projects like space company SpaceX and developing smaller companies like tunneling company Boring Company and research firm Neuralink. A third chief role of the magnitude of a Twitter to be redesigned should claim immensely even for Musk. Since the latter shows no signs of wanting to relinquish one of his positions, this concern can hardly be allayed at the moment.
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Musk may be taking on these challenges because he actually believes in Twitter’s potential. With a few changes, the company could generate significantly more profit, he had repeatedly emphasized in the past few months. Since Twitter has so far made little money compared to Facebook despite its immense importance, Musk is by no means alone in believing that he can make the company more profitable.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter remains a mystery. Perhaps he actually believes he can heal the rifts in US society. Maybe he likes the role of free speech savior. Maybe he’s only saying all those flowery words because he doesn’t know how to sell the expensive takeover of an unprofitable company as a success. After all, there’s good reason to believe he didn’t pay $44 billion to become Trump’s stirrup.
Even if Musk finds a way to deal with hate posts better than banning those who promote them, the key question in his Twitter acquisition remains whether wallet and skill should really decide who breaks the rules of free speech on one of the world’s most important communications mediums determines.
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